Eleven weeks into his presidency, President Donald Trump’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria is being seen as evidence that mature voices have taken the helm of the administration’s security decision-making.
Veteran observers who spoke to VOA said the apparently successful missile strike on the Syrian air base from which the attack was thought to have originated bore the fingerprints of Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster.
“General McMaster, since he replaced [Lieutenant] General [Michael] Flynn, has succeeded in imposing a more regular process on national security decision-making,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama and Clinton administrations.
“He has advantaged the foreign policy establishment, the mainstream, at the expense of those who represent more strident views from the far right,” Kupchan said.
McMaster, an active-duty three-star Army general who formerly commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, was named national security adviser in February after the more hard-line Flynn was fired.
Trump’s action in Syria surprised many, coming just a week after two top officials, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicated the administration was content to leave Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in power.
Critics point out that the airstrikes marked a 180-degree turnabout from Trump’s position in 2013, when he issued a series of barbed tweets advising President Barack Obama not to attack Syria after a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs killed more than 1,400 people. In one tweet, he warned, “If you do [attack], many very bad things will happen, and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing!”
This week, the president’s Twitter bursts were less provocative. “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike …” was all he wrote. Later, he retweeted short clips of McMaster and Tillerson speaking to reporters after the airstrikes.
How events unfolded
A timeline of events leading up to Thursday night’s Tomahawk missile assault shows the evolution of the decision-making.
The president learned of the gas attack Tuesday morning at his daily intelligence briefing and asked for more information. That evening, key members of the National Security Council convened for a review of military options.
Wednesday, Trump spoke of seeing photographs of “innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies,” who had died from the gas attack. “This is unacceptable to me,” he said during a Rose Garden news conference with Jordanian King Abdullah.
Hours later, another NSC committee convened to consider three possible scenarios.
Thursday, Trump gathered his national security team on Air Force One while flying to Florida to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. Shortly after landing, the president met McMaster, Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to make the final decision.
The next meeting was in a secure room at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, shortly after his state dinner with the Chinese president. A photo released by the White House shows 15 top Cabinet officials and advisers around a small table for a briefing on results of the strike.
‘Professionalism’ seen taking root
James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington, said the timeline indicated a textbook decision-making process. He called this “not something you’d expect from a rookie administration.”
“It appears they used the system that was in place, which is bringing together your key people — State, Defense and the national security adviser — in kind of a coordinating role,” Carafano said. “Then you’re basically having all the key operational players make a decision, and everyone is playing their roles.”
Kupchan, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan policy research group headquartered in New York, and also a professor of international affairs at Washington’s Georgetown University, said McMaster’s steadying influence was encouraging. Overall, however, he called the Trump White House decision-making “immature.”
“There are different factions within the White House that are fighting it out on a daily basis, but I think that a certain professionalism is beginning to take root,” Kupchan said. “Early on, decisions seemed to have been shot out of a cannon. Now, even though there seems to be a lot of infighting, it appears that McMaster is, day by day, attempting to implement a steadier and more purposeful process.”